Saturday, January 10, 2009

And So It Begins...

we are in the new year and i'm feeling a sense of wonder and a little under the weather -- a weird cold has taken ahold of me, which is rather inconvenient, thank you very much, but whatever. but, beyond the cold, i feel like i want to purge everything from my house except for the essentials -- which, of course, would include my cookbooks, as you know -- and take my sons, our dog, our two bunnies and a couple of suitcases total, move to a communal farm somewhere, offer to be a slave in their kitchen and in the fields, home school my children and learn how to sew fabulous frocks for the masses. i sucked in home ec for the simple reason that sewing just wasn't my bag, which is kinda funny considering i enjoy knitting and cooking. i like doing crafty type of things, but as much as i have patience in the kitchen, i do not, for some reason, have patience with building stuff. i want it DONE, DAMMIT! however, i am learning patience, because it is my belief that if i want a cool chair in my basement or a great daybed, i'm going to have to make it myself right now. or, barring that, comb the curbs of america, find a nice enough or visionary discarded piece of furniture and remake it. hey, i have a large enough car, i could fit just about anything in there.

the point is my need to be one with the land, with simpler things, self sufficient beyond financial and into practical. my delightfully fabulous friend, stacey, is going to give me one of her sewing machines and show me how to use it. i worship stacey. oh, not just because of that. because she and her husband, gill, are two of the most genuine, warm and accessible people i've ever met. when i say accessible, i mean that they are available in an open way. i can talk to them about anything, we can disagree, then laugh about it and know we're adults and that's what adults do -- be individual, who they are and respect who the other person is without having to change them. isn't that great? gill and stacey are so respectful of personal choice that they appreciate it, even if they don't agree with it. or at least that's my sense of them. i mean, stacey's outspoken, but in such a well positioned way as to make me understand what being positively outspoken means. and her laugh is so infectious, i want to bottle it. and gill has a gentle quietness that hides a deep and brilliant mind and a huge heart. yeah, i'm gushing. it's a new year and i feel like gushing is necessary, because, too often, people don't know how much you like or appreciate them and this particular blog is in honor of my friends i truly appreciate here in the midwest. i could list them all, but i'm sure i'd forget someone, and i don't want to do that, so, instead, i would like to posit a dinner i would like to prepare for them, even if only in my mind, to thank them for being the kind of people who have made my time here not so lonely.

first of all, i would start with something amazing, tantalizing and meant to tempt tastebuds without filling stomachs. a lovely morsel -- perhaps a perfectly grilled fig with a dusting of pistachios and a good chevre melted over it. maybe some bruschetta topped with chopped grilled shrimp, tomatoes and feta. ah... the possibilities are endless. let me show you my thoughts:

first course:
Antipasti -- Grilled Polenta with Soft Cheeses and Grilled Marinated Vegetables

second course:
Stracciatella Soup

third course:
Spinach Salad with Roasted Pine Nuts, Garlic Crouton and a Drizzling of Good Olive Oil and Balsamic

palate cleanser:
Merlot Sorbet with mint

pasta course:
Orecchiete in a Sage Butter Sauce

main course:
Whole Herb and Salt EnCrusted Salmon w/a Citrus Beur Blanc Sauce
w/garlic and herb steamed baby new potatoes
roasted broccoli w/lemon zest and parmesan

seventh course:
biscotti with pears and oranges

dessert course:
Ricotta Cake with pinenuts and candied orange peel

all of these courses would have wine pairings, lots of conversation, and love. and i would prepare all of this in my magically transformed to football stadium size kitchen to be served in my exquisitely spacious dining room with the finest china, flatwear, and crystal. and we would laugh, have fun, eat and enjoy each other's company.

that's what i would love to do for my friends. and, in time, i hope i can. it would be fun to make something like this for my pals. i love doing it, the art of doing it, the feeling of putting my heart into the food to show people how much i care. even the mundane day to day cooking i do with and for my sons is full of feeling, which is why i love cooking so much. it's never really a chore for me, just because i feel so good about WHY i'm doing it, even when i'm cranky. and don't misunderstand me. i cook EVERY SINGLE DAY for practical reasons. i'm not making sauce reductions, frenching lamb chops or souffleeing eggs daily. nope, i'm making sandwiches for lunches (or heating leftovers), steaming vats of rice to have on hand, roasting chickens (and boiling them for stock), making quicky salads or cutting up fruit to go with dinners, and on and on. so, it's not glamorous, food network kind of work in the kitchen over here, although, sometimes (well, often), i do things like that to keep everything fresh for myself. but, even that, brings a smile to me. the little things -- turning a grilled cheese sandwich into something more so that my sons know what grilled cheese sandwiches can be beyond just a slice or two of processed or whatever cheese on some buttered bread, fried up in a pan and placed on a plate beside some canned tomato soup -- which is, in my opinion, one of the greatest comfort duos in the history of comfort duos (the other, for me, is won ton soup and a plate of dim sum, but that's me). they serve it at my sons' schools for lunch. the bigger reason that i "kick it up a notch" with simple things like grilled cheese and tuna melts, is because of how i love my sons and cooking in general. i want it to be special for them. i want them to know how much they mean to me through the cooking. this sense of taking something simple and making it more began for me when i had my first grilled cheese sandwich at a now extinct restaurant in los angeles called Cafe Figaro at the beverly hills end of melrose. if you know l.a. at all, it was where melrose runs into doheny drive and was where i spent many a night in high school. to say their food was amazing would probably be an overstatement, i suppose, but my memory of it is that it was, well, amazing.

they were a homey french bistro-y, european-y, healthy-y type of deal with lacquered wood tables and wood floors, dark in the evening, bright in the day -- funky cool and completely great. it was a rehash of the famed Cafe Figaro in Greenwich Village, on Bleeker and MacDougal Streets (just read how they closed that one in 2008, which is so sad). i loved them because they had my favorite pasta -- Linguine and White Clam Sauce -- which was my almost standard dinner when we'd go there (my friend, caryl, still likes to tease me about it, which brings a smile to my face all the time, just at the memory of that creamy, clam-filled sauce and perfectly cooked pasta -- one night, i ordered it and they came back and told me they only had the red sauce that night and i sulked all night long, eating nothing and drinking lots of wine -- which was another reason we liked going there, they never seemed to card us... wonderful). all of their ingredients were super fresh. they also had the best spinach on the planet -- sauteed with onions, topped with some good swiss cheese then served in a little crock kinda thing. oh, man. they had stuffed zucchini that was to die for -- first time i ever had it was there -- amazing whole wheat bread, great steak fries, and the best grilled cheese and tuna melts ever. it was my induction into a whole new world of possibility and from that moment on, i felt like i could never make a grilled cheese sandwich the same way ever again. no more just one cheese for me. it had to be more and with more going on.

now, just to be clear, i also went through a whole period of going to Nibblers, another high school l.a. hangout, and notoriously ordering their tuna melt, a slice of grilled ham, french fries with mayo, a coffee and putting the ham on the tuna melt and dipping my fries in the mayo -- which i still do. love it. and i can down a whole plate of Hamburger Hamlet fried chicken wings like i'm a man who has been starving in the desert for a year (my friend, brooks, calls my obsession with chicken wings my guilty food pleasure, just as i call his devotion to Sizzlers insanity -- so, essentially, we're even). i also believe in the power of the Fatburger Double King Chili Cheese Burger with Bacon and Egg (although i couldn't finish one or even make a dent to save my life, but i believe in its power and won a free movie ticket out of eating the Double King Chili Cheese Burger sans egg and bacon on a bet from the owner's son-in-law when i was 13 and, subsequently, got sick, much to my brother's delight), the deliciousness of a Jacopo's Sausage, Peperoni and Mushroom Pizza with Extra Cheese, a Carnegie Deli Pastrami and Swiss on Rye with Brown Mustard, a Nate 'n Al's Turkey, Pastrami, Swiss, Cole Slaw and Russian Dressing on Marble Rye (or Pumpernickel), Lox and Bagels with Capers and Tomatoes, also from Nate 'n Al's, and a DB Levi's chocolate chip cheesecake with a scoop of haagen das ice cream on it. Ah, childhood memories of food i haven't eaten since, well, so many years, i can't remember -- DB Levi's doesn't even exist anymore, but when it did, oh, man, it was awesome.

but, i've totally digressed and i'm sorry. i went down a path of food memory lane and i didn't mean to. it's the new year, ya know? the thought of dumping all of the old -- and i've got years of old to dump over here -- so i can make room for the new in a way i've never done before. it's a soul purge as much as a house cleaning. and it's bringing up things in me that are, at turns, exciting, sad, deliriously happy, and unbearably bitter. but that's good, in the long run. it makes me know i'm alive.

so, i'd like to leave you, today, with my memories and how i have turned them to working for us in our day to day over here. what i learned about grilled cheese sandwiches, i learned from Cafe Figaro (or Cafe Fig, if you were hanging there during that era). "hey, let's meet over at Cafe Fig in 20!" "tote!" (ex.: tot-ally)

2 large slices of your favorite bread -- we use home baked wheat, white, ciabatta, italian bread, crusts cut off, if you wish, but if you're using ciabatta, just keep them on. also make sure the bread you use is a fairly thick slice, not sandwich bread slice
good olive oil
fresh marinara sauce
2 slices fresh mozzarella
2 slices sharp cheddar cheese
2 slices swiss cheese
2 slices colby jack cheese
2 slices provolone cheese
1 slice parmegiano reggiano, cut in half
(note: try not to go too thick on your slices of cheese)
4 large leaves fresh basil, chiffonade
salt and pepper to taste
sauteed onions and mushrooms (optional)
roasted tomatoes (optional)
roasted sweet peppers (optional)

what to do:
1. if you've got a pannini press, brush it with olive oil and heat that up, or if you've got a waffle maker, turn the waffled side over to get to the flat grill side, brush with olive oil and heat that. if you've got neither, then just put a large skillet on the stove and brush with a generous amount of olive oil. follow assembly and cooking instructions for on the stove in step 4.
2. brush olive oil on the bread, all over, bottom and top. then brush the bread with marinara sauce and assemble the sandwich -- on one side of the sandwich, place:
sprinkle half of the basil onto the bread
half of the mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and peppers, if using
1 slice of mozzarella
1 slice of cheddar
1 slice of swiss
1 slice of jack
1 slice of provologne
half slice of parmeggiano
1 slice of cheddar
1 slice of swiss
1 slice of jack
1 slice of provologne
half slice of parmegiano
1 slice of mozzarella
top with the rest of the basil, mushrooms, onions roasted peppers, and tomatoes (if using). place the other piece of bread on top and press down.
3. if using a press or flat side of the waffle iron, place the sandwich onto the grill and press down until it is browned and melty. to be honest, i don't remember how long this takes, i just do it, and how it works is like this -- you put the sandwich into the press, press it down then walk away and let the heat do it's work, then check it, press some more, and so on until it's melted. don't try to put more than one or two sandwiches on these and only if they fit comfortably without crowding each other. if there's too much going on in there, it will not grill properly.
4. if you're using a skillet on the stove, don't assemble the sandwich just yet. take the two pieces of bread and brush them with olive oil all over. then, heat the skillet on medium high until a drop of water sizzles across it. toast each side of the bread in the skillet lightly, until just hot and a little golden. remove from the heat and quickly assemble the sandwich, splitting the assembly between both pieces of bread. DO NOT PLACE EITHER SIDE ON TOP OF THE OTHER. instead, place each assembled piece of sandwich bread into the pan and allow the melting to begin separately, then, when you notice each side has begun to melt, put the pieces of bread together and allow to finish cooking on each side, turning over until browned and melty.
5. this heart attack waiting to happen can be held in a warm oven until ready to eat -- and to get more melty, if you like. serve with really good sliced apples, thick sliced roasted potato slices and a nice Chardonnay (or, if for your kids and if you don't live in europe, apple cider). because of the size of the sandwich, you can cut this into quarters and share it out as an appetizer. you can also serve this with, yes, tomato soup... topped with a parmesan crouton, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of chiffonade fresh basil.

we also do this for tuna melts, but without the basil or marinara sauce, omitting the parmesan and using only one slice of everything.

i know i rambled a ton today and i'm sorry. maybe it's age setting it. or maybe i just had a lot to say... HA! didn't think of that, did you? either way, i'm sorry if i bored you all, but the memories of old and the knowledge of new just kind of merged today. maybe i can make my friends killer grilled cheese sandwiches, soup and have a raucous party of delight that way. as long as it comes from the heart, right?


lauren said...

Hi, Linda! Thanks for letting me know about your blog. I love reading about how you express yourself with what you make. Have you ever seen the movie "Babette's Feast"? I was just thinking you might enjoy it-- the end in particular. :)
Enjoy your day off tomorrow!

Shannon said...

Let me know when you find that farm. We'll join you!
And thanks for making me oh so hungry.....